Heroes and Villians: Batman and the Joker
Two weeks ago, I started a column on the relationship between heroes and villains. Then, I discussed two characters that managed to be total opposites, yet have just enough in common to make their battles carry some sadness. Today, I’ll be speaking about characters that are opposite in nature, but also with a unique difference in their very symbolism- Batman and the Joker.
Two of the most well-known comic characters in history, Batman and the Joker have had a relationship that has stretched back over fifty years. Batman is, of course, the Dark Knight of Gotham City, sworn to protect the innocent after the childhood tragedy of losing his parents to crime. The Joker is the ultimate Gotham criminal, an insane murderer who happily causes chaos with lethal pranks, or with just a knife and some spray paint. Unlike Batman, the Clown Prince’s origin is a mystery, as he is too insane to give a clear account. The most common belief is that he fell into a vat of chemicals that bleached his skin and hair, giving him his clownish appearance. Both hero and villain have emerged at the top of their games, as one of the most respected and most feared figures, respectively, in the DC Universe.
The Traits of Good and Evil
As with most heroes and villains, the very natures of Batman and the Joker are at odds. Batman is arguably the ultimate anti-hero, using fear and intimidation to run the criminals of Gotham ragged. Batman is so driven in his mission to create peace and order that he can barely tolerate failure, and will go into a situation with five backup plans, with five more backups for each of those. By contrast, the Joker is driven simply by madness, and is therefore unpredictable. The Joker will often change his plans to suit his mood, or kill an associate for no real reason other than a joke. He is totally driven by dark humor and murder, and sees his work more as an art form then a mission. As such, he is the perfect foe for the logical, dark-edged Batman, who must ironically think like his insane counterpart in order to defeat him.
However one of the most unique things about the relationship between Batman and the Joker is the unique reversal of symbolism. The Batman is man dressed in black, who uses fear and intimidation, insists on doing things his way, and often keeps secrets from those around him. Yet he is the hero, while the Joker, who dresses like a clown and is obsessed with humor and jokes, is the villain. It is a unique dichotomy, that allows the readers to move beyond the traditional appearance of good and evil and get a serious role reversal with each battle (though there are certainly many that are afraid of clowns). But even with these opposing factor and even opposing roles, there is still rather unique factor that connects both Batman and the Joker- the masks they wear.
Comic experts will often make the argument that Batman ceased being Bruce Wayne when his parents were murdered, and that the Batman persona is his true nature. As such, he is being himself as Batman, while Bruce Wayne is the mask he wears to operate publically. While the Joker would likely never use a civilian identity, he has also totally become his alter-ego, with nary a second thought to his previous life. As such, these two are both men who define themselves by their masks and therefore each other. Batman’s darkness and heroic nature are at their most apparent when contrasted to the Joker’s humorous appearance and obsession with humor and death and vice versa. In fact, the Joker has often said that Batman is the driving force in his life, and in many portrayals, either becomes sane or shuts down completely, when Batman leaves the picture. And since Batman cannot bring himself to retire and lose himself, the Joker continues to exist and cause mayhem, which causes the need for Batman.
The Joker and Batman are two of the most epic foes in history, and bring a unique opposing nature and even an inversion to their rivalry. And at the same time, they are intrinsically linked; one simply does not exist or function as well, without the other. Writers can use their relationship to not only set two opposing forces against each, but to make them unique, and give their relationship something beyond the simple nature of black vs. white. And at the same time, these characters still manage to define each other by contrast, and as such, their battles become essential, necessary devices for them to truly define themselves and who they are, now and forever.